Many fantasy RPGs use the medieval era as a backdrop or inspiration to build their worlds: think The Witcher, Dragon Age, Divinity, Dark Souls. But even without the dragons, magic, witches and warlocks, there is something inherently fascinating about the era – it was, after all, a dangerous time rife with political intricacies, brutal wars and religious dogma; a time of towering castles, jousting knights and tyrannical kings.
Enter The Pillars of the Earth, a story-driven point-and-click game set in 12th-century England. Based on the critically acclaimed 1989 novel by Welsh author Ken Follett, the game is divided into three books spanning 21 chapters and revolves around several characters, whose fates and lives are intertwined around the town of Kingsbridge. There’s Tom Builder, the mason whose life’s dream is to build a grand cathedral that will stand the test of time; Philip, a kind abbey prior who inadvertently gets dragged into a war involving two English lords; Jack, a young outlaw who grew up in the forest with his mother; Lady Aliena, a disgraced noblewoman who finds love in a most unexpected place; as well as a whole host of colourful, secondary characters.
The world of Kingsbridge is one of upheaval and strife from the get-go. The country is in the middle of a war after the death of King Henry I, as two opposing factions vie for the crown – and the characters you play will all be embroiled in it one way or another. You start the game as Tom Builder, leading your family through the woods to seek job opportunities elsewhere. Your wife is pregnant, it’s the middle of a harsh winter, and you’re low on food and supplies. As things go, your wife dies in childbirth, and out of grief, you abandon your baby in the woods. Yep, this game pulls no punches – and this is just a small taster of what to expect in the following chapters.
The real ‘star’ of the story, however, isn’t in its characters (although they are certainly unique and rich, with multiple layers). It is in the building of Kingsbridge Cathedral and what it represents. Ken Follet himself in interviews has said that his inspiration for the novel came from his fascination of medieval communities and their obsession with church-building. In medieval England, building a large and beautiful cathedral was seen as an everlasting monument to God, a way for them to make meaning of their lives and show their religious devotion. But at the same time, the church itself was a place rife with corruption, where bishops plotted to murder. Playing the game, I felt as if the characters are there to tell the story of the cathedral, rather than the other way around. Characters would live and die – but the Cathedral, despite being destroyed and rebuilt time and time again, would endure; the task of building it taken over by future builders. All this is beautifully brought to life with hand-painted portraits, each bursting with detail that makes each scene seem alive.
That being said, TPoTE is not for everyone. The pace is extremely slow, and there aren’t a lot of climatic moments – it’s really more like reading a historical novel than playing a game, really. There isn’t much to do apart from interacting with objects. Your choices are not that important when it comes to the overarching narrative, but they do matter in relation to the fates of several characters and whether they live or die. You don’t get to solve puzzles other than a few easy ones which have more to do with using items in your inventory to interact with certain things on the screen than actually cracking your brain. And of course, once you’ve finished the game, there is very little replay value. Still, it offers good value — I completed mine in 12 hours, and I since I bought it on sale on Steam for RM15, I can’t complain.